Updated May 27th, 2020

By: Brent Davis, RCM Reliability Specialist, Pinnacle

Plant operators play a critical role within process manufacturing facilities. These team members oversee the equipment, assets and personnel necessary to run a successful chemical, petrochemical or refining facility. Operators maintain and record readings and measurements of process control instrumentation and equipment to ensure an optimal level of performance and production, while also scheduling and coordinating maintenance efforts as necessary. Ultimately, an operator’s goal is to improve the plant’s product quality, efficiency and safety, while complying with applicable regulatory requirements.

Recognizing the impact of proper operator driven reliability (ODR) on the overall operation of a facility cannot be understated. Experienced and/or properly trained operators are able to assess and manage the reliability aspects of assets and systems. On the other hand, inexperienced and improperly trained operators typically struggle to manage plant performance. Degradation of asset reliability, due to gaps in leadership support, technology utilization and employee competency, typically leads to significant, undesirable economic, safety and environmental consequences.

Operators: Undervalued and Undertrained

In some facilities, the potential impact that the operations department has on the health of plant equipment is minimized, due to a lack of understanding of the value of operator’s duties. For instance, in some cases, operators are simply appointed as “valve turners” or “meter readers.” Facilities that do not enforce stringent training programs requiring operators to thoroughly understand aspects of the equipment to which they are assigned, the chemistry behind what they are doing and how external forces can impact the facility’s processes, are far more likely to fail at optimizing and maximizing efficiency. As a result, overall performance of the plant will be negatively impacted. At these facilities, the operators are not encouraged or required to understand the complex processes that they are assigned in order to maintain and control the equipment or assets. This practice results in process inefficiency, downtime and a higher risk for safety issues.

Operations departments must ensure that their personnel are trained to quickly troubleshoot and correct problems before they get out of hand. For example, if an issue requires the operator to “call out” someone else to initiate corrective tasks, the chances of a quick resolution are slim if the operator is not trained or otherwise guided to be able to quickly identify these situations, and take effective and timely action.

Operators Provide the First Line of Defense

Operators play a more critical role than ever before –they serve as the facility's first line of defense.

Extensive Training

Increased Complexity

Additional Responsibility

Operators are the eyes and the ears of a process plant. Therefore, operators are optimally positioned to resolve issues before they escalate and become catastrophic. As part of operator driven reliability, operators should be able to detect equipment and process abnormalities, as operators not only control the process, but also provide the primary surveillance on equipment operability. For example, when performing Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) studies, operations personnel are usually assigned the bulk of risk mitigation tasks, due to the fact that they observe the equipment on a daily basis and, will most likely be the first to recognize an early problem before a catastrophic failure occurs. Well-trained operations personnel have the ability to operate safer, better and faster, and are therefore of significant value to the facility.

In addition to process training, it is also vital that facilities provide mechanical and fundamental instrument & electrical (I&E) training relevant to the operator’s assigned area. This training enables operators to fully understand the inner workings of their equipment. With this knowledge, they will better recognize changes in sound, temperature, vibration, output and other variables, which can facilitate the early detection of degradation and pending failure, and initiate proactive intervention. Operators can also better control or eliminate external, often random failure causes (e.g. oil condition, operating envelopes, etc.) which can significantly increase overall equipment availability and economic life.

Early detection via focused operator surveillance (e.g. excessive vibration, overheating, etc.), can help minimize repair costs and allow intervention to reduce or avoid such production losses. For example, after initiating weekly handheld vibration readings by operators in one facility, an operator found a reading out of range, which triggered the immediate response of contacting the rotating equipment team. After further assessing the equipment condition, the rotating equipment team determined that the pump should be switched out with the standby pump as soon as possible. By switching out the equipment, the facility was able to avoid an estimated $750,000 loss, including seven days of downtime to perform a repair.

Additionally, console operators possess the ability to optimize processes while monitoring multiple variables on the Process Control System (e.g. DCS, PLC, SCADA). The console operator is expected to maximize efficiency and output, often working with the outside operators to achieve these goals (i.e. comparing operating points with outside local indicators to verify accuracy, comparing lab sample results to real time GC analyzer sample measurements and making outside equipment adjustments, etc.).

The console operator has the ability to trend data that will help identify any degradation of equipment performance. Signs of degradation can be identified through control valve positions, feed flow rates, product flow output rates, temperatures, pressures and verifying product composition to meet required specifications through field analyzers, to name a few signs.

The Importance of Operator Driven Reliability

Properly trained operations personnel provide the first step in efficiently optimizing performance of a process facility. Properly focused and structured operator rounds serve as the basis for operator driven reliability practices, providing significant benefits, including:

  • Avoidance of downtime and catastrophic failures through early detection;
  • Minimization and/or removal of external, often random failure causes;
  • Assurance that all operators perform at a consistent level; and
  • Improved process reliability and increased plant availability.

The impact of most equipment failures can be minimized when operators “know” their equipment and understand what “normal” and “abnormal” looks like. This holistic approach can help minimize repair costs, reduce down time, mitigate or eliminate safety hazards, and even extend equipment life. Operator surveillance should be developed via a defined reliability process, such as RCM, which will assure each activity directly adds value, and is justified.

About the Author


Brent Davis serves as RCM Reliability Specialist for Pinnacle. In this role, Brent ensures clients receive cost-effective solutions that improve facility performance. With more than 30 years of experience in the oil and gas industry, Brent has held operations, instrumentation, management, technical, and consulting positions. His experience in the industry includes on and offshore production, refining and petrochemical. Brent specializes in reliability enhancement tools and resources that provide the highest return-on-investment.

Before joining Pinnacle, Brent was an instrument technician with Lone Star Gas; an instrumentation maintenance contractor for the refining, chemical and petrochemical industry; and an instrument technician and a production coordinator at ARCO Chemical. As production coordinator, Brent oversaw the day to day operations, production, maintenance and strategic planning of turnarounds. Brent’s prior experience has equipped him to become a lead analyst on Pinnacle’s Reliability-Centered Maintenance (RCM) projects for major clients in the U.S. and abroad.